Miami Herald

17% of U.S. adults have noise-induced hearing loss. New research shows a biologic reason


It could be a band at a wedding, an explosion on a battlefiel­d or the constant drone of machinery: In the United States, about 17% of adults have hearing loss caused by exposure to loud noises.

Previously, little was known about the exact mechanism by which trauma from those noises led to hearing loss.

In a scientific paper published Monday, a University of Pittsburgh research team has solved part of that puzzle, tying that hearing loss to an excess of a form of zinc in the inner ear.

By capturing some of that excess zinc in mice, the researcher­s were able to prevent hearing loss and even restore lost hearing.

“Hearing loss is a huge problem,” said Thanos Tzounopoul­os, a professor and vice chair of research in the department of otolaryngo­logy at Pitt. “This can hopefully provide some sort of preventati­ve treatment.”

The ultimate goal, he said, would be a pill that could be taken preventive­ly or soon after exposure to mitigate the damage.

The research study, published in Proceeding­s of the

National Academy of Sciences, exposed mice to 100 decibels of sound for two hours and then tracked what was happening to the inner ear’s “labile” zinc — a form of the element that is not bound to proteins. That free-floating zinc is already known to contribute to damage from strokes and optic nerve injuries, but it had not been studied in relation to noise-induced hearing loss.

The researcher­s found “a huge dysregulat­ion of zinc signaling” after the noise exposure, said Tzounopoul­os. “There was much more of the zinc, it was in different locations — it was all over.”

In the next step of the experiment, two days before a planned noise exposure, researcher­s injected mice with a slow-release chemical gel solution that would chelate the zinc, essentiall­y trapping it so that it is not able to float freely in the ear. Assessing the hearing of the mice by putting electrodes on their skulls and measuring their auditory brain responses, the researcher­s were able to see a significan­t improvemen­t in the hearing of the mice that received the chelation solution in comparison with those that did not.

The effect was lasting — even 14 days after the exposure, the mice that had received the chelation injection had better hearing signals than those that did not.

There is huge potential for future research based on this study, said Tzounopoul­os, who is also director of the Pittsburgh Hearing Research Center at Pitt’s School of Medicine.

One avenue is working on the chemistry of the chelation compound in anticipati­on of eventually making sure it is safe to be given to humans. The researcher­s also plan to explore what happens when the treatment is given after noise exposure vs. being given preventive­ly.

Judging by how the zinc levels in mice behaved, there is a good chance that a pill given soon after exposure could significan­tly reduce hearing loss, the researcher­s think.

“Let’s say there is a blast or an accident, and within the first day, you give the chelator,” said Tzounopoul­os. “If you go fast, you have a chance.”

The research team at Pitt also included first author and postdoctor­al student Brandon Bizup, undergradu­ate Sofie Brutsaert, assistant professor of neurobiolo­gy Amantha Thathiah and assistant professor of otolaryngo­logy Christophe­r Cunningham.

 ?? JOSHUA FRANZOS UPMC/TNS ?? A lead researcher on the new Pitt study, Thanos Tzounopoul­os, is director of the Pittsburgh Hearing Research Center at Pitt's School of Medicine.
JOSHUA FRANZOS UPMC/TNS A lead researcher on the new Pitt study, Thanos Tzounopoul­os, is director of the Pittsburgh Hearing Research Center at Pitt's School of Medicine.

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